16 Feb DakotaLink bus service started to help residents get to cou…
Dakota County has a public transportation problem in the county seat.
A public transit system does not exist in Hastings, where the county jail, courthouse and main administration building sit adjacent to each other off state Highway 55. And that puts Dakota County residents who need access to certain services in a big bind, officials say.
Hastings is a “transit desert,” said Mike Slavik, a former Hastings City Council member who currently is chair of the county board.
“The problem is that we have transit around our western and northern service buildings,” Slavik said, referring to the county offices in Apple Valley and West St. Paul. “And the county seat has no transit whatsoever.”
Since mid-2018, Dakota County has been trying to fill a bus void for those who need to get to or from Hastings — whether it is someone leaving jail, going to or from the courthouse or accessing services in the adjoining administration building. And so far, the road has been a rocky one.
The county’s latest bus offering, called DakotaLink, is a free service that began Sept. 10. Three times each weekday, a small bus makes roundtrip visits between the county courthouse and jail in Hastings and to the Eagan Transit Hub and Signal Hills shopping center West St. Paul.
But low ridership, which equates to a high per-rider cost, has made county staff and elected officials rethink about whom it should serve and how it should be funded.
THE PRICE TAG
Through the first five months of the pilot program, DakotaLink gave free rides to 374 people, with 57 percent of them either leaving jail or going there to visit an inmate, according to county statistics. Another 14 percent went to or from court.
Ridership ranged from a low of 32 people in September — the first month of the service — to a high of 115 people in November. After taking into account the county’s fixed $61,000 contract with Hastings Bus Co., the service equates to an average cost of $204 a rider in September and $68 a rider in November.
“We know the cost-per-rider number has to improve, and we know if it doesn’t improve, the service is not going to continue,” Robyn Bernardy, Dakota County’s transportation coordinator, said last week. “That is not a good use of the public dollar.”
She said the county recently set a cost-per-rider goal at $30, a number that would require about 16 riders a day. To have even a chance to reach that number, county staff is recommending that the service be opened up to the general public.
Last week, the county board, which was meeting as the community services committee, unanimously supported the idea, Slavik said.
“There were a lot of tough questions asked and a lot of expectations put on staff, but while also realizing there has been some very good that has come out of this,” Slavik said.
The county board on Feb. 25 will consider extending the DakotaLink pilot program for a year, and enter into a one-year contract with the Hastings Bus Co. for just over $121,000.
During the first six months of the contract, the service will be free while county staff researches options to collect revenue from public ridership, such as fare fees and partnerships with local cities, Bernardy said. Staff will take the options to the county board for consideration and approval in September.
HOW PAST EFFORTS FARED
The idea of giving free rides started after county officials heard from local residents about ex-inmates walking or hitchhiking along Highway 55, and loitering at a Walmart across the street from the jail, Slavik said.
But the county’s first shot did not work out as planned. A program that started in July 2018 with Transit Link, a Metropolitan Council bus service, was stopped after just over a year because of timing issues and no-shows.
The service offered rides at 1 and 4 p.m., meaning inmates released during the morning were not jumping on board. The average daily ridership was under two.
“Frankly, it’s only going to be successful if people use this service,” Bernardy said.
And both Bernardy and Slavik say it is difficult to quantify a program’s success by looking only at a fixed bus contract cost. They point out a missed court date because someone does not have a way to get to the courthouse brings a cost to the county in the form of a warrant, arrest and jail.
“And with social services, of course, it’s hard to put causation on some of these things,” Bernardy said. “Would they have missed court had DakotaLink not been there? We don’t have that data. We don’t ask those questions. But we do know that if people do miss court, there’s a significant cost to the system.”